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Book Review: Detroit Area Test Tracks

A pictorial history of America’s first auto proving grounds.

by on Jan.18, 2010

The integral role that automobiles played in American life.

The move from street testing to dedicated facilities for automobiles took place in the early decades of the last century.

Because of what could be the first recall in the industry – copper cooled Chevrolets without radiators in 1923 – General Motors established its Milford, Michigan, proving grounds in 1924 and set about to standardize the testing of vehicles under controlled conditions, work that is still done there.

Packard followed in 1927, as did Studebaker. It took Ford Motor a decade more to catch up with what is now standard practice.

As part of what’s called the “Images of America” series of books from Arcadia Publishing, senior editor Mike Davis has culled images from many sources, predominately the National Automotive Historical Collection (NAHC) at the Detroit Public library, and come up with Detroit Area Test Tracks.

Towing a driverless Bel Air for a rollover test.

This 128-page pictorial history of engineering laboratories — commonly called test tracks — has just gone on sale. It is a quick, easy read.


Moreover, the photos are vivid reminders of the integral role that the automobile and automobility has played in American life.

It’s also a modest celebration of the can-do pioneering engineering spirit that made the United States the “Arsenal of Democracy” during WW2 (another Davis book) and the industrial power it still is today, albeit a waning one.

Banked road construction was not used on public roads in 1927 when Packard undertook it.

Who's the guy about to take the wheel and where? What vintage car is shown?

Not only were new methods in road construction required for the test tracks; also created were the tests themselves, their instrumentation, data recording methods and analytical techniques.

Results were shared between companies at meetings of the nascent Society of Automotive Engineers, which played a key role in developing badly needed engineering standards.

Davis says he got the idea for the book while volunteering to identify photographs acquired by the NAHC, where he is a trustee.

Moreover, he would welcome more information on the photos, clarification or anecdotes about the circumstances surrounding them.

A Plymouth Prowler front and a Jeep Wrangler body in this still unexplained Dunne shot?

For those of us who weren’t there, it’s an easy way to dip into a mostly unknown part of our automotive past.

Detroit Area Test Tracks, Michael W. R. Davis. ISBN: 9780738560229. Softcover, 128 pages, $21.99.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Detroit Area Test Tracks”

  1. Doug Swafford says:

    In the picture, Tom McCahill who used to test for Popular Mechanics. The car, I believe, is a 1966 Mercury Comet.

  2. Mike Davis says:

    Sorry, Doug.

    You flunk, only one out of three.

    You nailed McCahill but not the magazine nor the model year.

    Hint on the car: I own one, currently in winter storage.


  3. Bill says:

    Mechanix Illustrated. 1965 Comet? Dearborn test track?